A Century of Learning

Photos courtesy of JohnJernigan.com

My footsteps echo in the empty hall as I walk across the gleaming wood floors. Outside, thunder rumbles and dark clouds obscure the sunlight that just moments before was streaming through the towering bank of windows above the stairs.

Although the long hall is empty on this quiet morning as a summer storm brews, it’s not hard to picture it as it is most of the year: bustling with children and teachers. After all, this building is the oldest school in continuous service in the state of Florida and is about to recognize a significant milestone. This month, the Eighth Street Elementary School building celebrates its 100th anniversary.

The stately three-story brick buildingon the corner of 8th Street and Tuscawilla in downtown Ocala was built in 1914 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When the doors opened in October 1914, it was as Ocala High School and was billed as the “premier high school” of that era.

Barely a decade later, in 1925, the school was so overcrowded with students that another building was constructed on the same property. The original building became Ocala Junior High School and then in 1932, was christened Ocala Primary School. Since that year, it has consistently been an elementary school.

At the time, it was the only school in town without electric lights, but that changed the following year when electricity was added.

The school might have gained electric lights, but it wasn’t in the best of shape. By 1938, the building, which was described at the time as “dark and gnatty,” was in such poor condition that it was condemned and in danger of closing, although it never did.

The building continued to be used as a school during the Depression years as the country struggled through World War II, but times were tough. When parents and teachers convened for PTA meetings, no refreshments were served because sugar was in short supply and on the ration list.

The gymnasium was built during the Depression, thanks to the Public Works Program. Ocala Primary wasn’t the only school to benefit, as the program also erected gymnasiums at schools in Reddick, Anthony and Weirsdale.

In 1949, the school was once again renamed, this time as Central Elementary. It wouldn’t transition into Eighth Street Elementary until 1965 and has continued in that incarnation until the present day.

Today, Eighth Street Elementary serves students from kindergarten through fifth grade. After passing fifth grade, many students move on to neighboring Osceola Middle School.

When the 2014-2015 school year began this August 18, Eighth Street Elementary welcomed just under 350 students into its 17 classrooms staffed by 17 teachers and 27 instructional staff members.

Principal John McCollum is now in his sixth year at the helm of Eighth Street and his eighth year as principal at adjacent Osceola Middle School. All three of his daughters and three of his nephews have attended school here.

Originally from Miami, McCollum’s entire teaching career has been in Marion County, beginning in 1979 when he started teaching at Stanton-Weirsdale Elementary.

“Even in Miami, many schools didn’t get air-conditioning until the 1960s, but this school was a little late,” notes McCollum. “Eighth Street wasn’t air-conditioned until October 1978.”

Thankful for the fact that those ACunits were fully functional on this muggy summer day, I follow Principal McCollum on a short tour of the building. On the main floor, we stop before a series of photographs on one wall honoring the school’s past principals.

One of those principals in particular, Mrs. Helen Ingrao, deserves a great deal of credit for the school’s reputation of having a friendly, tight-knit atmosphere. She served as principal from 1982 until April 2002 after her untimely death following a sudden stroke at the age of 58.

“It was just like family here with Principal Ingrao. I think being a smaller school and a ‘neighborhood’ school made for a closer-knit family atmosphere. The parents were so involved, and the kids respond to that kind of atmosphere. I think you can still feel that today,” says former teacher Pat McGinnis, who taught physical education to grades K through 5 at the school from 1981 until retiring in 2009.

“I’m still involved with some of the other retired teachers,” says McGinnis. “In fact, I was just about to leave to meet some of them for lunch. Since it was like family working there, we still keep in touch.”

Gloria Arnold, another former teacher, agrees.

“Helen Ingrao was the principal who hired me. Her love of children and compassion and support of the teachers made it a very special school,” says Arnold, who taught fifth-grade language arts at Eighth Street from 1985 to 2004 when she retired.

“We were like family; everybody looked after each other and took care of each other,” adds Arnold. “I think this is unusual, and I credit a lot of that to Helen.”

Principal McCollum and I head up the wooden stairs worn smooth by countless students’ shoes over the decades.

In one upstairs corner classroom, I pause to look out the enormous 10-foot tall windows that offer a picturesque view of the neighborhood. This is definitely the 21st century, but here, in this room, there is a distinctive overlap of old and new, ranging from the 14-foot high ceilings to the overhead projectors. Today’s students, who can’t imagine life without cell phones and the Internet, might not appreciate this juxtaposition, but to me, the history in the room is palpable.

A built-in corner supply cupboard has a definite 1950s look, but just a few feet away, a large SMARTboard dominates one wall. There’s not a blackboard in sight.

“Blackboards went out when technology started coming in because chalk dust interferes with the computers,” explains McCollum. “We started moving toward white boards with dry erase markers and SMARTboards where the teachers write on the board with their fingers. Every classroom is outfitted with these boards now, and the majority of them are funded by the parent body.”

“Technology became a big part of the school over the years, and now it’s in every classroom,” says Arnold. “Technology is very much a part of the kids’ lives. The children helped me learn as much as the workshops I attended.”

Bringing technology into the schoolhas been only part of the updates the historic building has had over the years.

Over time, some of the alterations detracted from the stately building’s appearance, so in 2001, a $2.5 million historic grants-in-aid preservation project took place. The much-needed project covered multiple aspects designed to literally bring the old school into the new century.

Due to the great increase in technological equipment, the building’s antiquated electrical service was inadequate. In addition to totally updating electrical systems, the project included repair of basic infrastructure, such as roofing, as well as installing a three-story elevator so the building would meet handicap requirements.

Also included in the project was the installation of fire sprinklers and fire alarm systems. Windows were completely replaced, and the brick exterior of the building underwent a thorough cleaning, as well. Every effort was taken to ensure that the elegant old building didn’t lose her aesthetic appeal.

“During that year of major renovation and repairs, the main building was closed,” says McCollum. “We had a ‘portable city’ on the Osceola physical education field, and our students spent a year in those portables while the renovation was going on. Within the last days of that school year (2000-2001), the renovation was complete enough to allow the fifth-graders to have their traditional walk-through one last time.”

That significant renovation happened more than a decade ago. But for a building that has reached the century mark, this is just part of her ever-accumulating history. If these walls could talk, oh the stories they would tell!

Of the thousands of students who once occupied desks in the school’s classrooms, some have gone on to have great impact in their community and state. Among past students are former Ocala Mayor E.L. Foster, Lt. Governor of Florida Jim Williams and former Ocala Chief of Police Morey Deen, along with three generations of the Buddy McKay family, to mention only a few.

McCollum hopes many of those past students will attend the upcoming Centennial Celebration set for Saturday, September 27 at 9am.

In case you wondered why that date was selected, don’t think too hard.

“We chose September 27 because it’s a Gator bye week,” laughs McCollum. “There’s nothing historic about that date other than the fact that the Gators aren’t playing that day.”

“We have local and state education representatives confirmed to speak. The ceremony/program will have Eighth Street students giving a brief history about the different eras and how education has changed and evolved. Children will dress in these eras,” says Kristin Dean, PTO president for Eighth Street Elementary.

The celebration will include an open house so guests can walk the hallways and step back in time as they reminisce, thanks to photos and memorabilia from the past. One classroom will be staged to resemble the school’s early days in the 1920s and ‘30s, while the other side of the same room will show off the latest high-tech advantages enjoyed by current students.

“We’re hoping to incorporate four former students from different eras to talk about their time here,” says McCollum, “all the way back from the Depression era through segregation and to modern times.

“All the students who are in attendance that day will be invited to come up on stage and sing a ‘Centennial’ song, which was recently composed by the music teacher, as well as an old school song. This lets all of the kids participate, not just selected students.”

“Following the ceremony, a light breakfast will be served outside. Tours of the school will be given by student docents,” adds Dean. “The public is invited to share in this monumental time.”

As McCollum explains, part of the Centennial Celebration is a Capital Campaign to fund future improvements in the 100-year-old building and the school’s education programs.

“We’re hoping to capitalize on the Centennial Celebration to do some significant fundraising,” he notes. “We’ve already put in a security system, and we also want to put up a decorative fence around the front of the school for safety reasons but also to meet Historic Ocala Preservation Society (HOPS) requirements. We’re also looking to have a humanities program where we bring in speakers to enrich the students in arts and music, as well as extracurricular activities.

“We’d like to encourage anybody who has attended the school and for whom the school is important to come out and join us for the celebration on the 27th,” says McCollum. “If this school has made an impact on you, come out and celebrate with us.”

Photos courtesy of JohnJernigan.com

Posted in Ocala Style Features

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